Public Speaking / Presentations / Proposals
Between a Proposal and a Doorstop
Clients have read and heard hundreds of proposals, and although a few are
outstanding, most aren’t. Many offend with ‘cut-and-paste’ boilerplate,
miss important opportunities to provide value, suffer from poor logic and
organization, and focus more on you than on me and my organization.
Although some do a few things well, some don’t do much well at all.
Writing Winning Business Proposals
the dilemma of proposals. A distraction. A nuisance. A curse. But, in many
cases, the only way to win business.
smaller companies, subject matter experts have little choice but to shift
their attention from profit making to proposal drafting. The rueful choice
between doing the work or taking a gamble, albeit the kind of gamble that
assures future income flows through the pipeline.
Larger companies will
have a marketing component to lift the burden from the SMEs – conducting
research, coordinating the process, providing writing support. There are
several advantages to having a marketer on hand:
It frees up
the SMEs’ time, allowing them to focus more fully on their work (and only
contribute to the proposal on an as-needed basis).
involvement ensures that germane messages are incorporated.
proposals pass through a single gatekeeper, there’s a greater guarantee of
quality assurance and a consistent look-and-feel … elements essential for
someone in the film industry once told me: “It takes as much money to make
a bad movie as it does to make a good one.” Certainly, many factors bear
on whether you win the work: chemistry, experience, proposed solution,
price. But, clearly, your candidacy isn’t advanced by an uninspired, and
in some instances unreadable, proposal.
Whether proposals are prepared by SMEs or by a designated marketer/writer,
the effort can be undercut by myriad misconceptions. Following are the
four most notable, and deleterious, notions.
1. The bigger, the better.
probably the niftiest scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark – Indiana
Jones dashing through the streets of Cairo, clashing with Dr. Todt’s
henchmen, coming face-to-face with a beefy, sword-wielding Arab… and
a common belief (among proposal producers) that size, and showmanship, are
critical. For many, size is synonymous with the amount of effort put into
it. Conversely, a good communicator knows that quality, not quantity,
matters. Your proposal can be a towering, overstated display like the
scimitar-twirling thug, or it can be like Indy, dispatching the problem
with a single bullet.
seen proposals the size (and weight) of marble slabs. Stop for a moment
and imagine your audience. Gathered around a boardroom table. Asking, “Do
we read this or simply request more copies to replace the lobby floor?”
for those who feel that immense equals impressive (i.e., “Look at all the
work we put into it”) – the intelligent reader, assuming the bulk of the
text is boilerplate, will sigh “Look at all the work they didn’t
put into it.” In fact, a portly proposal is a sure-fire way to estrange
your audience. “Enormous” intimates:
unable to communicate in a straightforward, succinct manner.
Tabs or no
tabs, you expect the reader to slog through a swamp of extraneous
information to get to what they want.
trying to hide something (“Well, we didn’t say that exactly. The fine
print on page 118 indicates…”).
addition, for all your protestations about understanding the client, a
giant proposal blares: “You’re busy? Nah. You can spare an evening or two
to pore through our answer to War and Peace.”
Think about it: you want to differentiate yourself. In a world of
gargantuan proposals, a smaller, more focused effort stands out.
2. Proposals have to be dull.
Officious. Verbose. Stilted. That’s how (submitting) companies like their
proposals. (As noted above, receiving companies often have a different
opinion.) Seasoned proposal readers can skim a proposal and tell how
intent the company was in communicating to me. Hmmm… Constipated phrasing.
Large blocks of copy. Plenty of stats… about their firm. Wait a minute,
there are more mentions of their company than mine. What’s going on?
proposal writers are stuck in a rut, convinced that – in order to be taken
seriously – they must (a) adopt a tone more solemn than a funeral
director, and (b) knead content as flat as a Passover matzoh. This is the
age-old myth of business writing, where everything needs to sound like a
legal document. (How do you know you have a good idea? When it elicits a
prissy dismissal – “That’s not professional” – from a senior manager.)
Whenever you’re communicating, your job is to engage the audience.
Proposals fall short when they:
focused inward, not outward
– Do your homework. If you boast a “global network of offices,” show how
those offices overlap with the client’s facilities. If you have a new
service, show how it helps solve the client’s predicament. Remember: it’s
not about you – it’s about the client. Everything is about the client.
the obvious –
I’ve seen too many proposals that begin with a variation on “XYZ Inc. is a
utility company with 30,000 employees in four states.” Congratulations,
Sherlock, you visited the company website. Few things cry lazy more
than parading readily available factoids. Tell me something I don’t know…
or could only have discovered after considerable legwork.
saturated with off-the-shelf information
– The reader will only know whether you specially prepared content if it
speaks directly to their organization. Anything that veers from that road
is extraneous. Boilerplate has its place, but just know: readers can spot
canned content a mile off; it won’t win you the business.
theme – You’re
courting a hospital. What goes on the cover? “A Proposal to Provide
Laundry Services to All Saints”? Or a picture of a maternity ward with the
heading “Delivering every day”? One merely describes. The other is not
only customized, but conveys a unique benefit. That’s a theme.
(Note: The only time proposals tend to get creative is in varying from the
structure recommended by the RFP. I can’t state this strongly enough: obey
the RFP guidelines. Failure to do so is a red flag, warning: you can’t
follow directions; you want to prevent the organization from making an
apples-to-apples comparison between submissions; you want them to hunt for
information. The RFP process is distasteful enough for the
decision-makers – you don’t want to make it worse.)
3. Proposals should be packed with graphics.
a natural inclination – your proposal is sagging with text, so you want to
jazz it up with pictures. A piece of photo art here, a diagram there. Used
appropriately, and in moderation, graphics are great. They can complement
and illuminate your copy. Used excessively, they not only prove
distracting but downright obnoxious.
Organizations may argue that the audience won’t read the text (“Okay,
maybe they’ll scope the Executive Summary and the fees”); ergo, an
emphasis on graphics. This psychology leads to a plethora of sidebars and
a gallery of charts, tables, and models. (At some companies, marketers
feel like galley slaves on a Roman trireme, rowing to a relentless beat:
“More graphics! Faster! Faster!”). The cumulative effect can be
disjointed – a mind-boggling banquet offering everything but last week’s
considering what graphics to use, and where, keep the following in mind:
graphic serving a purpose?
In proposals, as in most things, simplicity is key. Because a proposal is
already rich (overflowing?) with text, you should keep a tight rein on the
visual supplements. Beware of ornamentation, graphics meant to liven up a
title page or add color to headers and footers. Graphics should have more
of a reason for being than to adorn a boring page.
graphics easy to understand?
Some equate complexity with profundity. Readers, in turn, are treated to
baroque, baffling diagrams. This is fine if they have an eye toward
labyrinthine mysteries a la Angels and Demons. For those seeking a
lucid explanation, busy diagrams resemble nothing so much as a wall
layered with graffiti. Proposals aren’t the forum for showing how erudite
or esoteric you are (columns like this are). Patterns and strategies are
best laid out plainly. Spare the lavish touch.
have more than one model?
I’ve seen proposals that include multiple models. Granted, different
models may apply to different aspects of the project, but this can get
confusing. Unless it’s clear how, and where, the models apply, clients may
believe one contradicts another. Also, in the course of a presentation, do
you really want the client inquiring, “Which model are you referring to?”
graphics have a consistent look-and-feel?
Unless you stick to a single style, your proposal could end up like a room
full of mismatched furniture, mixing Arts & Crafts with Colonial with
Modern. In such a goulash, such an optical free-for-all, brand identity is
lost. Readers are adrift in images, with no solid impression, perplexed.
4. Proposal writers are just glorified AAs.
Rodney Dangerfield said, “I don’t get no respect.” And neither does the
average proposal writer. Because the proposal process is so often
denigrated, it goes without saying that proposal writers are denigrated
along with it. Demands for efficiency lead to an assembly-line,
color-by-numbers approach. (But at least the company’s well-paid talent is
freed from “serving time.” )
Writers play a vital role in the proposal process. At best, they serve as
stewards, gatekeepers, constantly wondering, “How does this tie together?
How does this serve your central point?” Writers are essential in
defining that central point.
worst, they are overruled and under-utilized. Like anyone else, writers
will sink to the company’s expectations. If a company is intent on getting
the least from their writers, they should:
team solely composed of recent grads
– Nothing diminishes credibility like inexperience. Recent grads may lack
the critical ability, and the confidence, to extract the right information
from subject matter experts. While some SMEs may see value in directing a
bunch of cowering novices (“They do what I say”), a system in which SMEs
aren’t challenged is like any one-party system – a prescription for
disaster. Being a gatekeeper is meaningless if there’s a penchant to let
anything pass through.
writers perform a limited set of responsibilities
– What can you say about proposal centers or groups that are no more than
proposal mills, the process reduced to a mechanical exercise whereby
writers are graded by output and piecework (“Your quota is five proposals
a week”), with quality a sad afterthought? Writers become clerks in an
unvarying grind – ringing up purchases, stocking shelves… the path to
burnout and turnover. The alternative? Presenting proposal writers with
other challenges/opportunities – drafting collateral, composing press
releases, writing articles.
boilerplate database as a silver bullet
– Many companies feel that a bounteous database is the epitome of
efficiency. Just cut-and-paste your responses and, voila, a completed
proposal. The job becomes a breeze, with writers dispensing answers like
Yu-Gi-Oh cards (“Dark Raven! Aqua Jolter! High Vizier!”). Uh-uh. An
over-emphasis on rote answers not only makes the job deadly dull for the
writer, but doesn’t demonstrate a deep understanding of the client’s
issues and salient solutions.
everyone have their say
– Proposals have a tendency to snowball, drawing in more contributors,
more viewpoints as the process rolls along. What you end up with is a
cacophony of voices trying to out-shout one another, too many chefs in the
kitchen. (Cue one of my favorite sayings: “A camel is a horse designed by
committee.”) This doesn’t crystallize the message, it dilutes it; with
every constituency awarded its own message, the proposal becomes formless
and meandering. The writer’s job is to keep things in check, keep things
simple and on-message. In effect, they’re serving as a dam, countering the
impetus to make the proposal more complicated than it needs to be.
Maybe the most accurate image of the proposal writer is that of a
charioteer trying to steer a team of horses… and win the race. The good
writer doesn’t blindly accept the SME’s hastily scribbled missive; the
good writer spurs them to deliver their best work.
can only shake your head when you consider how much goes into a proposal…
only to find a finished product clotted with vapid, convoluted, worthless
material. From my time in the proposal warzone, I can assure you – it
doesn’t have to be that way.
Writers aren’t only struggling to get proposals out but are contending
with a chorus of nay-sayers. “We’re too busy to help.” “Don’t we already
have a proposal like this?” “Don’t worry, nobody reads proposals.”
Here’s a truth that seems to elude the more deluded proposal producers:
Proposals are marketing. In fact, they’re one of the strongest
tools in your marketing arsenal. The proposal is a front-line sales piece.
It’s likely to have greater impact than any brochure or e-mail… in part
because the proposal was actually requested. If the reader only spends
five minutes looking at it, that’s four more minutes than they’ve spent
with your other communications.
lousy proposals win business? Sure. Especially among undiscerning buyers
primarily focused on price. (Just because they put candidates through an
elaborate selection process doesn’t mean the buyer can tell excellence
from egg salad.) Otherwise, quality counts.
quality, we mean more than an absence of typos or the accuracy of
information. Quality is about how well you’re speaking to the client.
It’s hard to believe a company when it says it’s committed to quality and
that isn’t evident in the proposal.
Quality. It’s the difference between supplying rote answers and exhibiting
real intelligence – the type of awe-inspiring aptitude and razor-sharp
judgment the client desires. It’s the difference between a page-turner and
a turn-off. It’s the difference between a proposal and a doorstop.